We are reaching a point where I start to remember more. How do I edit? Up until now, the memories have been few and the editing minor. If I retain the memory from so far back, it must merit inclusion, even if it appears banal. More and more, I am going to be obliged to start making judgments about the memories as much as about what was told to me. What are the appropriate criteria, apart from a less than vivid personal sense of what was significant? I don’t know, but the richer part of my childhood began in Birmingham, and my childhood was rich indeed.
Dad appears less throughout this missive than mum, the inevitable corollary of their respective roles. She was home all day and raised Sue and me. Dad left before we did in the morning and worked all day at the office. He stayed away overnight one or two nights a week, and when he was home arrived around seven or seven thirty and ate his dinner hours after the rest of us had eaten our tea. He wasn’t entirely absent, but he was barely present during the week. On weekends we all did do things together, but day to day during the week his work was his principal activity and Sue and I were mum’s principal activity.
We appreciated his efforts on our behalf: it was clear to all of us that he was working so hard for us as much as for him, if not more. His job in Birmingham was entirely responsible for our new-found rise in status, and for the new car in the driveway. He was personnel director now, an officer on the Board of the division, which is the UK way. We finally had a detached house, a key index of our arriving into the middle class. His employer in Birmingham was Rank Hovis McDougall. Lord Rank bought small local bakeries, put them together with a couple of famous brand names, and bingo he had formed a very profitable conglomerate! Wayne Huizenga did the same thing with local video stores much later to become Blockbuster.
I liked seeing dad’s company’s shares quoted on the stock exchange, RHM was their symbol, although it seemed to me that dad should own a whole bunch because he was important to RHM, or at least to Mr. Gayer, who ran the Midlands Region of the British Bakeries division of the conglomerate and was dad’s boss. But this was years before options and managerial sharing of the enterprise’s risks and rewards. Even today in the UK there is a sense that managerial ownership of the managers’ company’s stock is unseemly, an invitation to the same short-term obsession that characterizes the wider markets at the expense of long-term value enhancement. Dad worked for his salary, his company car and his travel. Long-term value enhancement was definitely his goal. I was proud of him going up in the world, as mum explained to us all the time. “From day one I’ve always known that your dad was going to make it, going to be a success. He doesn’t know it himself, but he will, you mark my words!” We did mark her words. We had little choice, if you think about it! We were little children listening to our mother, and on top of that she repeated the thought again and again until it became a kind of incantation.
The subtext was repeated less, but nonetheless lodged within us. Dad lacked confidence, but he would make it anyway because mum was there to support him. She never put it quite that way, but that was how she saw it. Perhaps he did lack confidence: I was too young to fathom it out. If self-confidence is measured by the assets that you have, dad did fine. He was an only child. His cousin’s mother, Aunty Alice, adopted dad to the point that he was raised by two cooperative mothers simultaneously. He had been a successful all-round athlete at Slough Grammar School. In his last year his school football team beat RAF Medmenham’s team, adults in the armed forces, 2-1. This was a part of family folklore that I loved to hear. He had been good at schoolwork too, and mum was very proud of his being accepted for admission to each of the five universities that he applied to after he was demobilized from the army after the war. This was a time when admission was notoriously difficult because all the demobbed military people were several years of admissions trying to get admitted all at once.
He chose LSE, the London School of Economics, probably the best of the five, where his teachers included Harold Laski and others of the world’s best economics minds, and where his tutor in personnel management, Nancy Seear, later became a Life Peer for her services to the Liberal Party. She was by all accounts an extraordinary woman, contesting five different parliamentary seats over a period of 20 years, none of them successfully, and championing the cause of women employees and other disadvantaged groups. She was perhaps the source of some of the unique and perceptive education that dad gave us as we were growing up, and if so she was indeed remarkable. Here, coincidentally, is a Paddington moment. Paddington appears here and there in this story, principally because dad’s paternal family was from that part of west London. Some years before he died in Paddington, in the hospital where Alexander Fleming had discovered penicillin three years after dad was born nearby, Nancy Seear became the Baroness Seear of Paddington. She was then 58 years old, dad’s age when he died.
I do not know many indicators of a lack of paternal confidence. But there were a couple: dad was raised by an invalid father whose weak heart caused him to spend dad’s teenage years in hospital almost constantly. How did that feel? And how had it felt to see his mum wracked by rheumatoid arthritis as she entered middle age? Her body literally tied itself up in knots as the disease assailed her. She was the only Grandma I knew, tied up in knots in her wheelchair, trying to smile. Older relatives like Aunty Alice used to say things like “be grateful for your health,” and as a child I had no idea what they meant. It seems so obvious and important now, and maybe mum was right in that the ill-health of his parents might have undermined dad’s self-confidence to some degree.
But mum was clearly proud of all the time that he spent talking her through his day at work, all the advice that he asked her for when Sue and I were in bed late in the evening. They talked and giggled and did daily newspaper crossword puzzles together for hours and hours. It was her moment as spouse and confidante, and it meant the world to her. So maybe dad did lack self-confidence on some level during those years, but my guess is that he built the relationship with mum on that late evening communion, by telling her without saying it every evening he was at home that he needed her. Whether he absolutely needed all of the advice he asked for or not, whether he absolutely needed all the reassurance that she offered him or not, all in all it made the relationship work, put it back together, perhaps, and made the family, our family, a happier place.
That was what dad did so well, build relationships. At work, he negotiated between unions and management in the worst years of postwar industrial relations in the UK, way before Maggie Thatcher broke the unions’ power live on nationwide TV when she refused to give in to yet another miners’ strike. At home, he took a marriage that he had almost ruined very early on, and helped it into a warm and productive partnership. He was always so well liked, and rarely seemed to burn bridges. He felt betrayed by me later, during my prolonged adolescence, even, I suspect, pretty angry with me for leaving home to go so far away, but I only figured it out much later. No bridges were burned at the time. He managed to avoid retribution most of the time, even when he felt the most need for it. Hundreds came to his funeral in 1983, many from all the way back at Slough Grammar School, and more from Henleaze Hockey Club and each of his jobs. He was genuinely loved far and wide. Most forgave him his transgressions. Even mum, even me. At the time I didn’t appreciate the significance, but dad was the only company man to be invited, along with mum of course, to the Transport and General Workers’ Union Midlands Region Annual Dinner. Alan Law ran the region for the union, a hardcore shop steward for a hardcore region of a hardcore union, and dad’s company had TGWU members in just about every bakery. He must have only taken the job after his prospective employer agreed to the principle of treating employees correctly, allowing him to resolve disputes other than by trying to force the bakery employees into submission. Most employers at the time were taking the power-play path, more or less painfully for all involved, including for the companies whose CEOs took that position, and dad must have looked like a savior, to his company as well as the TGWU, by the simple expedient of being decent.
Dad almost never had strikes, except of the short and unannounced wildcat variety, during this period when British industry was strangling itself on poor industrial relations. Alan Law was an old-fashioned union man who I am sure could tell the difference in his gut in less than two minutes between an employer who at bottom shared his goals and one who did not. Dad was a very decent man, and was recognized wherever he went for being honorable as well. Throughout my prolonged adolescence, I felt very proud of him because of those invitations from Alan Law to the TGWU annual dinner. Even now, with my politics more sedate, it looks as if he really knew something special about helping people work together.
Dad’s womanizing looms its head whenever I refer to him as decent or honorable. But it did not at the time. I learned much later in life that womanizing is impossible to do decently. At the time, I barely noticed it, which is a tribute to mum’s keeping her feelings in check in front of the children, as far as she could. The odd occasion when I did notice something, it didn’t matter to me and I didn’t notice it matter to mum. If anything, the possibility of other women was for me background noise in the family home with no more impact than background noise on the radio. On one occasion dad returned home for one of his inevitable overnight stays on business, in Manchester I think it was, with a shot glass with “Old Grandad” written on it. He explained that he had rebuffed a woman he had met in a bar with stories of his family, and that she had stopped by his table later to give him the glass as a joke. I didn’t buy a word of it: perhaps he found it all too funny, perhaps the story didn’t hang together with my limited understanding of human nature. I remember thinking that he must have had a serious flirt with that woman, at a minimum. But what he had done or not didn’t really matter. I was immersed in adolescent concerns about these relationship issues. Their adult equivalents seemed minor by comparison.
My contact with dad’s job wasn’t all good. He told us that all the advertising for the natural goodness of brown bread, called “Hovis” when his company made it, relative to white bread, was a load of baloney. He seemed quite pleased with himself, announcing this misleading publicity campaign at least implicitly sponsored by his company, and I was perplexed. Why say that it was if it wasn’t? What was the point? And why make the bread worse if you were selling more of it? Wouldn’t economies of scale permit you to make it better for the same price? I didn’t use that kind of language then, of course, but the common sense of mass production was already plain to see. If I had known more then, I would certainly have been more distressed. Brown bread is more wholesome than bleached white bread because it contains more natural grains and fiber. What made Hovis less wholesome was that it was essentially bleached white bread colored brown to make it look healthier!
Soon after it opened, dad took the family to visit to the Company’s enormous and spanking new bakery in Coventry, opened to great fanfare as the largest bakery in Europe. It was an extraordinary sight for us children, and the smells were rich and varied as we walked through the bright lights, the bright white paint and the glistening stainless steel machines. “Mother’s Pride” was the name on the door, and we looked on as Hovis and other breads in the business were mixed and baked here. Dad was less vociferous after the bakery quietly closed not that many years later because the expected demand never materialized.
All the time he worked hard at keeping both employees and management happy, keeping these warring factions at peace for the good of the company despite the factious social climate. Unwittingly, almost by osmosis, I was becoming educated in industrial relations and some of the basics of business.
I learned early that good business is good people. Gerald Rose, who with his wife Sylvia became mum’s and dad’s friends over the years, founded Mr. Kipling Cakes for RHM, a whole new brand for a whole new product line. At home, we ridiculed their TV ads, which featured the eminently forgettable slogan “exceedingly good cakes,” as well as a kind of Edwardian or Victorian voiceover and scenery. We were convinced that the whole line was certainly going to fail under the weight of those awful, out-of-date and uninspiring ads.
This may give an early indication why I never sought to be a businessman myself. To say that Mr. Kipling prospered is a woeful understatement. Gerald prospered too, the ads were still going on and off over thirty years later, and Mr Kipling cakes still had shelf space in 2008 in all the UK’s major supermarkets. RHM valued the brand alone in 2004 or 2005 at $500 million. “You can’t win them all,” as dad used to say!
Even Gerald could not win them all. He retired quite wealthy and I imagine feeling quite wise, and became a Lloyd’s “name,” or investor in the reinsurance market. What he did not know was that even this deep in the aristocracy of business, the newcomer gets screwed before the old-established player. Whoever organizes things at Lloyd’s, and it is certainly done with immense subtlety and discretion, apparently placed the newer money in newer and riskier portfolios, from which the established names were much more likely to be insulated. At least, that was the essential claim made by Gerald’s syndicate and other newer groups against Lloyd’s and its longer established syndicates. Five years later he was as good as ruined by the effects of asbestos-related claims on him as a “name” and the ensuing litigation. Gerald’s misfortunes came later. I only found out about them when mum and I lunched with Sylvia and him in about 1993 near Marlow, almost 30 years after the launch of Mr. Kipling cakes. That remained his triumph.
Dad’s own path was pretty successful. Building on his talent at negotiating with unions, he shared the CEO role for his division when the titular CEO had a heart attack, and was himself offered in his turn a seat on the Board of Reed International. Reed was the conglomerate that included his WPM division, a major paper and publishing multinational built up by Don, later Lord, Ryder. He turned the seat down to mum’s relief, because it would have required more international travel and absence from home, and because he had already had at least one heart attack and did not want to push his luck. But he remained influential. The then CEO of Reed, Alex Jarratt, later Sir Alex, would still buttonhole him at dinners and other social events, seeking his advice on this or that pending issue. Dad would complain about it, or more accurately seem to complain about it, pretending that the attention bothered him so as not to be seen as boasting. But he was obviously flattered that the boss would go out of his way to seek his advice, and yet again I would feel proud of him.
It’s good to feel proud of your dad and of what he did in his career.
© Ian J. Stock
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